Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 2009: Annual Health and Fitness Letter

I have had the habit of writing about health and fitness in first the July and more recently the June issues of this letter. It is important to write about this for me, since living well and right is a lifelong challenge for me. I have written about diet and cycling. This year I will write about the concept of stress.

Well, first off, I have to acknowledge that I allowed myself to backslide over the past year and a half. I remained a vegetarian but I lapsed and ate too much and too much of the wrong foods. My biggest weaknesses are chocolate, sweets, and plain old simple overeating.

The secret formula of eating right and getting to a naturally good weight and lean body has not changed. It is to eat as little fat and simple carbohydrates as possible. This means, for me, the basic Ornish diet: no meat, no white sugar, no white rice, no white flour, and to avoid processed foods which tend to be rich in fat and simple carbohydrates. When I do this I am full without overeating. I stay full longer and if I snack, it is dried fruit and roasted chick peas.

I would like nothing more then to blame this on the stress of the economy, my job situation, impending weddings, and what else? I could blame global warming, the North Korean missile launches, the Taliban, and perhaps even Pluto being officially declassified as a planet in our solar system.

The bottom line is stress and the subsequent trying to eat through it. First, I had to stop overeating and get back to eating style outlined above. No matter what other motivations I may have, the weddings of my children are on the horizon and frankly, I would like to look as good as I can in the photos.

Secondly, the motivation to live as long and as healthy as possible is still very real. The goal was to be able to know my grandchildren and share in their lives as much as possible. I would love to be at their weddings and dance with them.

Enough of this, I have covered all this in other letters.

The questions that I am wrestling with are why I have stress and why I allow it to ruin my dietary style. The breaking of this cycle is important to me. As a casual observer of people, I also believe it is very important to others.

It will also help me in terms of mental health as well. You are probably wondering what the heck I am talking about right about now. I guess I am talking about putting it all together to work towards both physical and mental health and fitness. Or so I profess.

Stress has two effects on me. First, as already laid out, it makes me want to eat through it. I am not alone in this. Many people eat their way through whatever their problems are, whatever they think their problems are. The foods that are available people like me are salty, sweet, or fatty. They taste good but are horrible for us. No one eats a bag of carrots to deal with stress. We eat a pound of Oreos. We eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs. Or, we do both. The sugar high helps only as long as the sugary spike lasts. And, that is not very long at all.

Second, stress also causes a paralysis that saps my will to act. So, it seems worthwhile to look at stress since it is apparently the root of all my, and let me use the scientific term here, stupid behavior.

What is stress? There is a biochemical component to this. In a state of stress, the body reacts chemically. For the greater part of mankind, stress was the reaction to a very real danger. Fight or flight was a very real choice that had to made instantly… for survival. Without getting too deeply into it, the adrenal gland releases hormones that spike the sugar level in the blood to fuel either the fight or flight. When faced with T. Rex or an invading horde, this is a most natural and very necessary reaction. When faced with a dictator boss at work outburst or an unreal traffic jam on your way to the airport, the same mechanism can kick in. In the later case, where does that sugar spike and energy rush go? If you are one who loves to fight or can translate this calmly into action, it probably fuels your activity. Otherwise, it is like eating too much sugar, you spike and then crash. It can begin an overeating cycle of spiking and crashing.

Fight or flight? I rarely choose the fight option. Why am I not choosing the fight option? These two manifestations of stress may well be related. Binge eating of simple carbohydrates and fatty foods cause these dramatic ups and downs. The downs, which I believe there are lot more of than the highs, probably re-enforce the paralysis and certainly the lethargy. Crazy as it sounds. I know this to be true about me and see it others as well.

I am slowly becoming convinced that stress does not exist. It only exists between my ears. It is contrived. I allow others people and sometimes events to create it. Dr. Wayne Dyer, a Detroit native and a fellow Wayne State University alumnus, was featured on PBS television a few weeks ago. He made this exact point. He said “there is no stress in the world.” He challenged the audience to go out and come back with a bucket of stress. He then said no one could complete the challenge. Why? Simply stress does not exist.

I have seen this and know that it certainly can be true. The problem is that I have witnessed this and seen it to be true only a select few. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by looking at an all too common situation. Let’s say something goes awry or off the plan at work. The boss, a surly SOB, explodes, motivates, berates, and possibly threatens your job. How do people react? Why do some people, eat their way through this, drink their way through it, or just stop with that deer in the headlights look? More importantly, why do a select few just take it stride like it were nothing really big, add a few items to their to-do list, and get to rectifying things?

What is the nature of this second and admirable class of people? Are they immune to stress? Do they just suppress it? Re-channel it to the task at hand? Are they fighters? Are they smarter, more organized? Are they simply advanced life forms?

You can tell that this is something that I have thought about for a very long time. Here is what I think I know about the people that have a non-stress reaction to what could be a most stressful situation. Sure they have a sense of urgency but there is no stress. They do not blame themselves. They understand the nature of the boss and that this is the way he or she will always react to such situations and thus do not take it personally.

There is a definition of stress that I have always loved. There are variations on this, but I have always liked this one. In fact, I like it so much that I have committed it to memory:

Stress is the most unnatural suppression of the most natural urge to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately deserves it.
Apologies. I do not often use profanity in these letters, but the use here is critical to the definition.

Even this humorous definition supports the points I am trying to make here. It is all in the mind. And, stress is caused by other people. Others are not actually creating stress; they are just being themselves, moronic, self-serving, maniacal as that may be. The stress inside of us is simply how we react to them.

Why do some of us have road rage while others weather it cool, calm, and collected? It is the same thing as the surly boss and the humorous definition. It is how people react to the situation so differently.

Well I understand this semantically. I even understand it philosophically. Sure stress is just a concept. But, it is a very real concept; at least the resultant behavior is very real. Road rage is real. Binge eating is real. Depression is real. But, so is the positive reaction.

Let’s go back to the surly boss. Why is it that some people crumble and are paralyzed by the surly boss outburst, while others just shrug it off and get to rectifying things? There is even a class of people who use the stress as fuel. These fighters look for chaos and conflict, they thrive on the fight. They look for the fight. They get power from winning every fight they can. They clearly apply the fight principle to every issue in their lives.

Can we change our basic reaction to stressful situations? Clearly, whatever coping mechanisms we have, fight, flight, fear, paralysis, binge eating, or some combination of all seem well ingrained. We cope and somehow get things done, some better than others. After all of these other questions, there is a big one that is the point of this letter. Can we eliminate stress i.e. change the way we react to stressful situations? Clearly, I have been thinking a lot about this. Yes, lots of thinking but no real good answers.

Change is possible. But, it is not easy. We have learned how to react from our earliest years. We have learned to cope with parents and teachers telling what to do and not to do. We have learned to react to their feedback, positive and negative, constructive and not so constructive, from an early age. I used to make fun of the way psychotherapists used to have patients revert to their childhood to find the root cause of the issues.

I am reading a book entitled Stop Self Sabotage by Pat Pearson. It is pretty good. The Wayne Dyer program on PBS was entitled Excuses Begone. Both are focused helping people get out of their own way and increasing the probability that we actually achieve what we want. Dyer began by talking about stress. Pearson never really talked about it. But they both got to the same point of providing advice on how to get rid of the excuses and barriers that cause us to stall and come up short against our dreams. Failing whether at weight loss, business, love, or whatever can be stressful if it is a recurring theme in one's life.

It is a cliché but admitting the problem or recognizing the issue is the first step toward changing the situation. The pundits all say variations of the same thing. We must work to recognize the stressful situations, how we react to them, and gradually change the behavior of reacting to these situations.

Pat Pearson talks about self-esteem and self-confidence. She looks at them as independent factors. They can be either high or low. Clearly, we want to be in a state where both are high and we do not want to be in a condition where both are low. The interesting concept is the interaction where one is high and the other is low. I am not sure if I have high self-esteem and low self-confidence or vice-a-versa. I am still sorting that out. Maybe it doesn’t really matter.

Another cliché is to envision the behavior you would like to model. In this case, I would like to be like those calm, cool, and collected folks that do not really react to the stress inducing surly boss. They take the pertinent points and turn them into action items which they knock off effectively and efficiently. That is what I would like to be.

Certainly, in truly stressful situations, physical emergencies that involve life and death or just work related crises of epic proportions. There is no time to think. There is only time to act. When there is a fire in a warehouse, you work to get it put out and then work to get product flowing again. There is no time to contemplate anything. In true stressful emergencies, events dictate your response. Even the surly boss doesn’t matter.

In non-emergency situations, I have been like that for short periods of time. It is a good feeling. Paralysis just adds to the stress which leads to a deeper paralysis et cetera. Binge eating adds to the spikes and drops in sugar levels, which also sustains stress. Then we induce more stress because we are not accomplishing what we want professionally or health wise. Maybe I need to develop an act first think later approach to life. That will be tough.

In reading over this letter, part of me wonders why I am subjecting anyone else to these true confessions. Another part of me feels very good to just write about this and get it off my chest. It is refreshing to do this.

I am embarking on a new business. I am joining my friend Ara Surenian in an Demand Planning and Inventory Management Consulting business (www.demandcaster.com). There is stress here. While trying to decide to do this, I felt like I was at the edge of a cliff and afraid to take that first step, that leap of faith. After awhile, I got a little of the Nike attitude: Just do it. I was stressing out about that first step. Sure, I have worked for large companies my entire career. There is a steady paycheck, but there is a lot of other nonsense that one must also deal with. Maybe I was not standing at the edge of a cliff but rather on the edge of a curb. I will never know until I take that first step. What is there to be afraid of? Nothing. I can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying that the only thing I “have to fear is fear itself.” And this fake fear causes real stress that messes with me mind and body. It is as I said earlier in this letter, just plain stupid.

Surely, these habits can be changed. It is not easy and I know it will not be easy for me. But, I feel I must try. So for the next year, I am dedicating myself to both physical and mental health. I would like to see if I can put it all together: eating right and thinking right. Eating right and exercising is hard enough, thinking right to minimize stress and maximize my effectiveness, I think will be even harder. But, I am going to give all of this a shot. It could be very exciting. It should be the best year ever.

1 comment:

  1. Cuz: Very interesting topic. I, too, have given much thought to the topic of stress and, in particular, (i) the implications of it on our health/mortality and (ii) ways to better deal with it. [I am a stress puppy, after all.] I will spare you my thoughts on the topic and simply write down those words that are taped to my office wall and confront me EVERY DAY. To wit: "Exercise is a good way to relieve stress, but there is no perfect solution for everyone. The following stress relievers work for many people: take a brisk walk; talk to a supportive person who can help you cope; wait until you are calm and talk to the person you believe is causing you stress; have a good cry; pare down/learn to appreciate simplicity; exercise regularly/engage in receational activities; express yourself through arts, crafts and hobbies/write in your diary; and, relax, meditate, sleep well at night and try yoga." Sounds like a full-time job to me!!! Your cuz, D Gavoor P.S. I've found that, at least relative to the relationship between stress and food, people fall into one of two camps: (i) those that eat greater quantities and eat food of lesser nutritional value and (ii) those that simply eat less (because they carry much of their stress in the tummy and thus just aren't as hungry).